Sadly, most of us can all too easily recount stories of pastors who betrayed their congregations, who hurt the very people God had called them to love, who—in short—made their ministry all about them.
Some of these pastors may have had their own inflated sense of grandeur from day one. But more often than not, these are the same guys who entered the ministry legitimately wanting to serve others, not angling to build an empire. And yet somewhere along the way, they got a taste for glory. And instead of being the shepherds of God’s people, teaching them to have faith in God, they become stumbling blocks, impediments keeping people from considering God at all.
As a Christian leader, I don’t hear stories like that and congratulate myself. I hear them and tremble. Because the same pride that has shipwrecked countless other ministries lives in my heart. And in yours.
We need to be constantly vigilant for signs that our ministry has become all about us. Here are a few:
1. Infrequent prayer
Most pastors enter the ministry desperate for God. It’s the fuel that got them going in the first place. And if their first few months (or years!) are tough—filled with bickering congregation members, budget quarrels, and failure after failure—the desperation just increases. But as uncomfortable as those trials are, they often produce a wonderful fruit: desperate prayer.
Prayer as a discipline is good. But prayer as a cry of desperation is better. When we see our need for what it truly is, no one has to command us to pray. We cry out because we are desperate. We cry out because we believe instinctively what Jesus said: “Without me you can do nothing.” And when that plea for God fades, it’s a dangerous sign that we are feeling self-sufficient.
2. Failure to consult others
I’ve seen this so many times. A ministry leader stops consulting God in prayer. And then he stops consulting others. He becomes an island and sees himself as on a higher plane. Suddenly he always knows exactly what’s best, so he doesn’t see any point in humbling himself, in saying, “I may not have it all together here.”
Having seen this one too many times, I can offer a sobering guarantee: this always destroys. God designed us for community, and correcting community brings life. When we isolate ourselves from wise Christian counsel, we begin the process of death. At that point, it’s no longer a question of if disaster will strike; it’s only a matter of when.
3. Materialistic excess.
I’m not a “poverty guy.” I sincerely believe that God blesses his children, and that we shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying nice things. Like the good Father that he is, God delights in giving us material gifts, and he often does so lavishly. In other words, it’s possible to be a true follower of Christ and eat a fancy steak, too.
But there’s a limit to this sort of thinking. Scripture shows a God who gives generously, but it also shows us what it means to be satisfied with little. As Paul said, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil 4:12). When your ministry becomes all about you, learning the secret of “plenty” and “need” disappears. Suddenly “abound” is the only relevant word in your financial vocabulary.
4. Harshness and resentment toward others
When ministry is all about you, people who get in your way are the enemy. So you become harsh and cruel to anyone who questions you. Instead of considering that they might be God’s appointed servants to teach and guide you, you imagine that they are only after your power. You become unforgiving, obnoxious, even paranoid. When you have the power to come down on people, you come down like a hammer. When you don’t, you pacify and placate, but not from a desire for compromise. People have become tools to you, weapons in your arsenal, to be abused or discarded at your whim.
It’s wearying to always be concerned about yourself. Supposed challengers are everywhere, so you’ve got to guard your reputation at every turn. You’re building your platform, elevating your name, so you can’t handle anyone who stands in the way. Criticism becomes debilitating. Praise becomes a desperate need. What’s worst, your passion for your renown drowns out any concern for God’s.
Christian leaders, God has appointed you to lead his people to know him. Do you understand the horrible offense it is to put yourself in the center, to substitute yourself for God? And what a disservice it is to you! You can’t handle that weight; you can’t save these people. The church is Jesus’ bride, not yours. You’re just the best man: so stop stealing the bride’s attention and bring her to the groom already.
What is true of Christians in general is dangerously true for our leaders: we most often pass the tests of adversity; it is the tests of prosperity that we fail. So beware your strengths, and don’t bemoan your weaknesses. Don’t take God’s blessing of success and make it all about you. What good is it, if you gain the whole world, but lose your relationship with God, your joy, your very soul?